INTERVIEW: The wild and wonderful art of Tony Meeuwissen

Robin, by Tony Meeuwissen

Robin, by Tony Meeuwissen - Credit: Archant

Illustrator and designer Tony Meeuwissen’s extraordinary career spans 50-odd years of the weird, the wonderful and the wildly humorous. Words by Candia McKormack

Chameleon, by Tony Meeuwissen

Chameleon, by Tony Meeuwissen - Credit: Tony Meeuwissen

“Like Quentin Blake, Aubrey Beardsley, Arthur Rackham or William Hogarth, Tony Meeuwissen’s work transcends illustration and has become part of our cultural heritage. Following the tradition of the finest British graphic artists, he has taken the medium to a new dimension through an extraordinary level of ingenuity, wit, and craft.” – RSA Royal Designers statement

When I interviewed Emma Kennaway last month, she said of fellow artists “we are a different breed; we don’t see the world the way that others do.”

I’ve thought about this several times since our meeting, and realise this must surely be the case. The greatest artists have a way of looking that is distinct to them, and Tony Meeuwissen’s incredible illustrations which have appeared in magazines such as The Sunday Times and Observer, adorned Royal Mail stamps, many books and playing cards… and even a Rolling Stones LP.

Praying Mantis, by Tony Meeuwissen

Praying Mantis, by Tony Meeuwissen - Credit: Tony Meeuwissen

Since we last met in 2012, Tony has been awarded the prestigious title of Royal Designer for Industry (RDI) – the highest accolade for designers in the UK – for “his distinctive and innovative contribution to British illustration over 50 years, and giving inspiration to generations of children learning to read or draw.”

It’s not surprise at all, of course – his work is astonishing – but how does one receive such an honour? “A couple of friends and colleagues who like my work put my name forward,” he explains, “and then you’re voted on by the current Royal Designers.”

A maximum of 200 British designers can hold the title at any given time, and so it’s an incredible award to be given. The scope of the work of designers who hold the title is wildly varied, too, from fashion designers such as Neville Brody for graphic design, Mary Quant and Vivienne Westwood for fashion, Lord Snowdon for photography, and James Dyson for engineering.

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In 2013, when Tony was given his award, there was a colourful array of designers who joined him.

Gypsy Moth, by Tony Meeuwissen

Gypsy Moth, by Tony Meeuwissen - Credit: Tony Meeuwissen

“One of them was a chap who designed footwear for people who had had their leg blown off, to help them lead a full life [Saeed Zahedi], then there was the man who does the lighting design for the Rolling Stones’ shows [Patrick Woodroffe]. A friend of mine, Michael Wolff [graphic design, 2011] says it’s a society for old men,” he laughs. “There are people in their 40s, of course, and it is incredibly diverse.”

Tony’s work ethic is still as strong as ever. A typical day will see him seated at his desk early in the morning, with Radio 3 or Radio 4 Extra on in the background. His current project is one that he’s been dedicating himself to for the past few years and which is being steadily developed in typically meticulous fashion, The Purple Emperor. He shows me the work that’s currently on his drawing board and it’s his glorious vision of a spotted flycatcher bird, with trademark Tony Meeuwissen puns shown in the flies he’s caught… there’s a fruit fly with its body made from various pieces of fruit, a horsefly with a horse’s head, and a bluebottle and carrot fly with corresponding body parts.

There are to be around 30 drawings in his book, each with the same amount of detail that can be seen in all his work, and which is painstakingly created using gouache, watercolour, and pen and ink. Each has a corresponding verse which Tony has obviously enjoyed sourcing, and used as a spark for his wild imagination:

Nuthatch, by Tony Meeuwissen

Nuthatch, by Tony Meeuwissen - Credit: Tony Meeuwissen

“The female spider / Can’t abider / Husband / Till he’s tucked / Insider”

… he reads while showing me the gruesomely cheeky illustration to accompany. Genius!

Another is a praying mantis, imagined by the artist as a clergyman with dog-collar and cassock, saying grace before tucking into a meal of a Tortoiseshell butterfly.

Christmas stamp designs by Tony Meeuwissen

Christmas stamp designs by Tony Meeuwissen - Credit: Tony Meeuwissen

Inspiration comes from all manner of things; Tony is a great reader and his studio bookshelves are crammed with books on subjects from photography and design to Esoteric Christianity and Gnosticism. He also finds the creative muse when out walking in the Cotswold countryside, and one of his sketches – based on a tree stump he discovered – is reminiscent of one of Leonardo’s grotesques.

Ideas can come out of the most mundane of tasks. “No one knows where ideas come from,” he says. “I think it was Brahms who said ‘the best ideas come to me while I polish my shoes early in the morning’.”

He recalls reading The Beano as a child and being fascinated by ‘Keyhole Kate. “She was a nosey-parker schoolgirl who was allowed to design her own room, and everything was in the shape of a keyhole. That amused me at the time, and so I used that sort of device in my work – I thought ‘how many things can you think of around this particular subject or theme?’”

“When I began, my hero was the cartoonist Gerard Hoffnung,” he continues, “as well as Ronald Searle and Mervyn Peake. I used to send my drawings off to Punch magazine, and I developed my style where humour became a part of my work.”

Seven of Hearts by Tony Meeuwissen

Seven of Hearts by Tony Meeuwissen - Credit: Tony Meeuwissen

So, had he ever considered being a political cartoonist?

“A cartoonist, yes, but not a political one. I used to like cartoons without captions, and particularly the French ones. In the Swinging Sixties – the Pop Art era – there were people painting all sorts of strange things on furniture, and I once did the Batman symbol on my friend’s door. And then I started to get a little more interested in what Magritte and Escher were doing, and you could see a different way of working.”

Tony has been planning his forthcoming Christmas exhibition with the same attention to detail he shows in all his work – a pencil sketch of the gallery space indicates which bodies of work are going where – and I am reassured that there will be a diverse selection of pieces from across his 50-plus-year career, including large-scale designs from the brilliant Key to the Kingdom deck of cards and accompanying book, his stamp designs for the Royal Mail, Penguin book jackets and some illustrations from his first book, The Witch’s Hat, which came out in 1976.

Astonishingly, 40 years after the book was published he’s managed to recover three images from it which are being remounted and reworked.

Tony Meeuwissen at home in his studio in Gloucestershire

Tony Meeuwissen at home in his studio in Gloucestershire - Credit: Candia McKormack

“I’m working on them again because, using aniline dyes as I did then, a lot of the colour’s faded. It’s funny working on something you did 40 or 50 years ago; you can remember your hand going on the work and it’s like you’re back there again, in that time. It’s a strange feeling, and there’s the thought ‘am I going to ruin it?’

“I think when I’ve finished working on this book, I might like to have a go at doing something looser,” he says, thoughtfully. “I would like to take a fresh look at the way I work.”

I admire his energy and creative spark – there really is no one out there in the field of design and illustration quite like him. Someone once said that when viewing Tony’s work “you see familiar things in unfamiliar situations” which I think is as close as we’ll get in an attempt to sum up his extraordinary style.

Tony Meeuwissen’s Christmas exhibition runs from December 1, 2016 until January 8, 2017 at Corinium Museum, Park Street, Cirencester, GL7 2BX, tel: 01285 655611,

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